Jazz Loses a Prolific Artist and Restless Dreamer: RIP, Bob Belden

Photo by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

Yesterday, one day after the passing of Blue Note Records chairman emeritus Bruce Lundvall, came the untimely death of Bob Belden, at 58. Bob and Bruce notably crossed paths at Blue Note, which Bob had served as an A&R executive and recording artist.
Then again, there are few paths that didn’t cross Bob’s. His work as a musician, producer, arranger, bandleader and annotator ranged widely across genres, decades and borders. His grooves and his smiles were infectious. His rhythms and his opinions could hit hard. On and off the bandstand, in and out of the recording studio, his ears and his mind were wide open.
An obituary by Jeff Tamarkin in JazzTimes begins with a summary that touches on the broad strokes of Bob’s work:

Bob Belden, a multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger, bandleader, label executive, historian and writer, died today, May 20, in New York City after suffering a massive heart attack in his Upper West Side apartment. Belden was removed from life support after being non-responsive for more than 24 hours. He was 58.
A true jack-of-all-trades in the jazz world, Belden recorded as a leader and in various band and sideman situations, playing soprano saxophone and other instruments and composing; produced recordings by other artists; conducted, orchestrated and wrote arrangements (for McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson and others); created and coordinated multi-artist theme albums including Indian and Latin music tributes to Miles Davis as well as tributes to Prince, the Beatles and Sting; compiled historical releases and box sets (on Miles and others) for major record labels; wrote liner notes and articles for jazz publications; and served as an A&R executive for Blue Note Records.
Belden won Grammy Awards for his work on 1996’s Miles Davis and Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (Best Historical Album, Best Album Notes) and 1998’s Miles Davis Quintet set 1965-’68: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings(Best Album Notes). He and trumpeter Tim Hagans were also nominated for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2000 for ANIMATION/Imagination and in 2001 for Re-ANIMATION: Live!. Miles From India, which Belden conceived and produced, was nominated for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2009.

And Tamarkin points out:

Belden was known within the jazz community as something of a raconteur—always outspoken, funny, never afraid to speak out on any topic, even when (especially when) his view was not the popular one. He was a vocal critic of the state of the music industry, music education and other aspects of the world in which he traveled. Yet he traveled easily within it because he understood it so well, and was loved and respected for his individuality and the sheer magnitude and breadth of his talent.

The last time I communicated with Bob, in March, he was emailing from Tehran, Iran, where he was leading his Animation band at the FAJR International Music Festival. There’s a fascinating interview with Bob about that trip in JazzTimes. The trip inspired coverage in The New York TimesCNN and Tehran Times, among other outlets. Bob, who I’d known for half my life,  had been reading my articles about New Orleans and Cuba. He said that he thought we shared “a strong desire to illuminate,” and that he’d found that same spirit in Iran. I was on the road at the time, but I held on to Belden’s nearly breathless emails, which I think reveal a bit about all that he railed about as well as all that he found true and beautiful. Here’s some of what he wrote, exactly as it spilled out, which I think forms a better epitaph than I could create:

Continue reading “Jazz Loses a Prolific Artist and Restless Dreamer: RIP, Bob Belden”

Jazz Loses a Class Act: Bruce Lundvall, Who Revived Blue Note Records, Dies at 79

Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

Tuesday night, I was saddened to hear of the passing of Bruce Lundvall, perhaps the last of the great jazz music-business executives, who, among his other credits, led Blue Note Records back from dormancy to a period of profoundly influential activity.
Bruce, who died on Tuesday at 79 from complications of Parkinson’s Disease, was a gentleman, a scholar, a true music lover and a friend whose stories kept me enraptured and taught me a great deal. He always looked dapper in his well-tailored suits and he lent positive meaning to the term “suit” as used by musicians.
In an obituary in today’s New York Times, Nate Chinen summarizes Lundvall’s impressive half-century in the recording industry and gets it right with this comment:

In an industry rife with egos and sharp elbows, Mr. Lundvall generated an unusual amount of good will. 

I’m sure to write more about Bruce soon. For now, I’ll post again, below, this excerpt from Bruce’s introduction to “Playing by Ear,” Dan Oulette’s Lundvall biography published by ArtistShare last year. My interview with Oulette about Lundvall and that project can be found here. Continue reading “Jazz Loses a Class Act: Bruce Lundvall, Who Revived Blue Note Records, Dies at 79”

U.S-Cuba: Freedom, In Two Languages

Pianist Arturo O’Farrill performs with trumpeter Yasek Manzano during “Cuba: The Conversation Continued” at Symphony Space in early May/ photo: David Garten

I’ve been following the coverage of the Minnesota Orchestra’s trip to Cuba, and thinking that the cultural exchanges among classical musicians resulting from a changed political landscape will likely be as powerful as the ones in the jazz world.
Michael Cooper’s most recent New York Times piece about that trip ended this:
After the break, Guido López-Gavilán, the conductor of the Youth Orchestra, took to the podium to lead the two orchestras in one of his own compositions, “Guaguancó,” a symphonic rumba. This time it was the students who taught the Minnesotans a thing or two.
 At first the rhythmic foundation of the piece — the five-beat repeated pattern called the clave, the basic building block of Cuban music — confounded some of the American players. They had all played clave rhythms before, explained Sam Bergman, a viola player in the orchestra, but the Cubans played it a little differently — delaying the third beat a bit.
Mr. Bergman said that at first the Minnesotans were off. “The kids were looking at us like, what’s the problem here?” he recalled. But the Minnesotans were able to follow the youth players and soon got it.
Wendy Williams, a flute player in the orchestra, said that she loved the piece so much that she hoped the orchestra would play it at some point when it returns to Minneapolis. “I just want to share it with our audiences back home,” she said.
I know that pianist and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill is in Havana right now, working on plans for a U.S.-Cuba educational exchange. Below is my recent Wall Street Journal piece about his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s collaboration with Cuban musicians in Havana and New York City. Continue reading “U.S-Cuba: Freedom, In Two Languages”

All The Things Roy Nathanson Is

Roy%20NathansonIf you see Roy Nathanson on the Q train, head down and pen out, he’s working on a poem. If you see him with his saxophone raised, he’s exulting in song or free improvisation.
More and more, the two activities have merged for the 64-year-old Brooklynite.
From June 2-7, Nathanson’s residency at The Stone, the tiny club John Zorn founded in Manhattan’s East Village, will explore the words and sounds and, most of all, the friendships that fuel Nathanson’s restless and genre-bending creativity. His duet partners will include guitarist Marc Ribot, pianists Myra Melford, Anthony Coleman and Arturo O’Farrill, and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, Nathanson’s fellow founder of the Jazz Passengers group. His bandmates include the members of his unusual Sotto Voce ensemble, in which everyone sings and a beatboxer rules the rhythm section, and all-stars from Manhattan’s Institute for Collaborative Education, where Nathanson runs the music program.
Nathanson has an uncanny knack for translating words into music and vice versa. His poem inspired by the tune “All the Thing You Are” contains this verse:

Today when we were cooking oatmeal
I heard Sonny Criss drive his Selmer
through the “Angel glow that lights a star” line
and I marveled at the metaphorical power of stars
How they rise above the bridges of all these old tunes

Nathanson also has a way of drawing great musicians into his own world regardless of the material. But this week, such communion will focus very much on one song: “The Nearness of You.”
Nathanson shared with me his enthusiasm for the program, and for that song:

This week of concerts feels particularly emotionally powerful since somehow, at 64, I’ve fallen back totally in love with my saxophone. Reed craziness and all. These last 10 years or so I’ve been concentrating almost entirely on connecting text and words—particularly on understanding how poetry, metaphor, voice and saxophone work together as language. This has also corresponded to the period I’ve started the ICE music department and involved my students in much of my artistic exploration.
A combination of aging, life troubles and changes, and diving again into Eric Dolphy’s language for Russ Johnson’s “Out To Lunch” project made me remember how my saxophone itself can tell a story without words. How just breath moving from note to note is a magical thing to savor. That a singing note is just a crazy cool thing.
For this Stone residency, I’m exploring duo conversations with old collaborators and friends whose language I know well: Marc Ribot, Curtis Fowlkes, Anthony Coleman, Arturo O’Farrill, Myra Melford, Claire Daly and Napoleon Maddox. These are people with whom I’ve spent years playing concerts with and sharing life experiences with. Anthony and I recorded 3 CDs and worked with musical gesture, words, free improv and composition. Curtis and I started the Jazz Passengers with this duo process. Marc and I have played together for over 35 years. The duo with Anthony hasn’t been heard in years, and others like the duos with Myra and Arturo are projects I’ve always wanted to do. If words come out of this duo process at the Stone, fine; but mostly the improvisations will be an older kind of storytelling for me. I will also have the pleasure of playing with the groups I’m most associated with: The Jazz Passengers, Sotto Voce and the recent Out to Lunch project.
While rehearsing last week with Arturo, he had the idea of playing “The Nearness of You,” a song I always loved. Arturo discussed how the song always seemed full of ambiguity, and I felt that too. That ambiguity was part of what I always found beautiful about it. Musically I remember both my dad [also a saxophonist] playing it, and how it in organ bars while I played in  Charlie Earland’s band, I felt it swing in ways that were almost oblivious to the lyrics. So I’m going to do a version of that song in every single duo.
Photo: Charna Meyers

Full schedule below:
6/2 Tuesday
8 pm
Roy Nathanson and Curtis Fowlkes Duo
Roy Nathanson (sax) Curtis Fowlkes (trombone)
10 pm
The Jazz Passengers
Curtis Fowlkes (trombone) Roy Nathanson (sax) Brad Jones (bass) Bill Ware (vibes) Sam Bardfeld (drums)
6/3 Wednesday (RJP)
8 pm
Marc Ribot and Roy Nathanson duo
Marc Ribot (guitar) Roy Nathanson (sax, poetry)
10 pm
Roy Nathanson Organ quartet feat. Marc Ribot
Marc Ribot (guitar) Greg Lewis (Hammond B3 organ) Nasheet Waits (drums) Roy Nathanson (sax)
6/4 Thursday
8 pm
Myra Melford and Roy Nathanson duo
Myra Melford (piano) Roy Nathanson (sax, vocal)
10 pm
Russ Johnson’s Still Out to Lunch
Roy Nathanson (sax) Myra Melford (piano) Brad Jones (bass) George Schuller (drums) Russ Johnson (trumpet)
6/5 Friday (SC)
8 pm
Roy Nathanson and Anthony Coleman duo (Lobster and Friend)
Anthony Coleman (piano) Roy Nathanson (sax)
10 pm
Roy Nathanson’s Sotto Voce
Roy Nathanson, Napoleon Maddox (beatbox) Tim Kiah (bass) Curtis Fowlkes (trombone) Jerome Harris (guitar) Sam Bardfeld (violin)
6/6 Saturday
8 pm
Arturo O’Farrill and Roy Nathanson duo
Arturo O’Farrill (piano) Roy Nathanson (sax)
10 pm
Institute for Collaborative Education All Star Band
Roy Nathanson, Isaiah Barr (saxes) Leo Hardman-Hill (trumpet) Sean Sondregger (sax) Max Balton (guitar) Nadeghe Giraudet (vocals) Zuri Gordon (poetry) Pete Karp (drums) Zara Acosta (clarinet)
6/7 Sunday
8 pm
Roy Nathanson, Napoleon Maddox, Claire Daly Trio
Roy Nathanson (alto and soprano saxes) Napoleon Maddox (beatbox) Claire Daly (baritone sax)
10 pm
Roy Nathanson with Zack O’Farrill Trio

New Orleans: Ballad Of The Trumpeter, The Library, The Market And The Money

20150508_IMBy Larry Blumenfeld
Shortly after I arrived in New Orleans recently for the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, I was handed a copy of “New Orleans Jazz Playhouse,” a coffee-table book full of reflections and ruminations, photos and memorabilia from trumpeter and bandleader Irvin Mayfield. It contained seven accompanying CDs of music featuring, among many fine musicians, Mayfield on every track.
The book draws its title from the name of the nightclub Mayfield founded in 2009 in partnership with the Royal Sonesta Hotel, which has hosted worthy gigs in a smart and swanky atmosphere on a storied French Quarter street that hasn’t seen much real jazz in decades. Its three guest essays—from trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Mayfield’s clearest mentor, and celebrated authors Walter Isaacson and Ernest Gaines—reflect the ease with which Mayfield—who was named to the National Council of the Arts by presidential appointment—negotiates a world of movers, shakers and big ideas.
Most of the book’s pages are devoted to cultural things, iconic and less well known, that Mayfield thinks define his hometown and, by extension, have shaped him. Page 103 is something of a paean to “three great institutions”: The University of New Orleans, where Mayfield once studied (he dropped out), and where he is now a professor teaching “New Orleans as Discourse”; WWOZ-FM, the listener-supported radio station that introduced him as a boy to quintessential New Orleans musicians like James Booker, and which helped build the audience for his own Grammy-winning music during the past 20 years; and the New Orleans Public Library System, which in Mayfield’s childhood offered him a free source of jazz LPs for pleasure and study, and for which he has, since Hurricane Katrina, leveraged his star power to help raise substantial sums from leading national foundations.
That book is big and bold and anything but humble. Yet the boldest manifestation of Mayfield’s outsized ambitions to date is The People’s Health Jazz Market, a new $9.6 million venue established by the nonprofit organization that supports Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO). The Jazz Market occupies the space of a long-abandoned department store at the corner of boulevards named for two 1960s civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. and Oretha Castle Haley, in New Orleans’ central city neighborhood.
With its inaugural public concert in late April, during Jazz Fest’s opening weekend, Mayfield’s Jazz Market joined Manhattan’s Jazz at Lincoln Center and San Francisco’s SFJazz in the ranks of urban arts center buildings dedicated to jazz. The architecture is similar to SFJazz in appearance, right down to the lettering on its nameplate; as home for the orchestra Mayfield founded in 2002, the project draws obvious comparisons to Marsalis’ jazz center.
Opening night didn’t lack for star power. Soledad O’Brien, who serves on NOJO’s board, was in an orchestra-section seat. Up in a balcony box, small white dog on her lap, was Dee Bridgewater, for whom Mayfield named his concert stage; her forthcoming CD is in collaboration with Mayfield’s orchestra.
The Jazz Market provides, like those other centers, a concert hall designed with jazz acoustics in mind. The lobby area, which includes a bar named for Buddy Bolden and will house digital jazz archive, becomes a community center by day, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. And despite the formality of his orchestra in suits and ties onstage, Mayfield began his opening concert by inviting audience members to “come hang out here during the day, use the wifi, do your business, have some coffee and hang out.”
By Tuesday, May 5, however, a dark cloud had gathered over Mayfield’s latest achievement, his much-lauded involvement with the city’s library system covered in mud.
The front- and back matter in his book, a mock-stamp from the public library, began to seem like a bad joke.
Continue reading “New Orleans: Ballad Of The Trumpeter, The Library, The Market And The Money”

Harlem and DC: Back and Forth, Then and Now

The Apollo Theatre Marquee in the early 1950s. Courtesy of Apollo Theatre

Jazz has always drawn from and expressed a sense of place. I’ve been thinking about what that means—how those places relate to the shapes and forms of music, and what it means for jazz when those places experience drastic change.
This weekend, pianists Jason Moran and Marc Cary will present what should be an illuminating project along those lines, and focused on the contributions and connections between African American communities in Harlem and Washington D.C. “Harlem Night/U Street Lights” will be presented on Saturday May 9 at at the Apollo Theater, as part of the Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival, and Sunday May 10 at the Kennedy Center. (The title’s reference to “U Street” honors what has long been a center for DC music and culture.)
Moran and Cary are both Harlem residents, and their lives and careers have also drawn them into Washington DC’s music scene. (Moran is the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center, and Cary, who was born in New York City, was raised and schooled in D.C.)
Among the other musicians involved are trumpeter Roy Hargrove, drummer Jimmy Cobb, pianists Bertha Hope and Gerald Clayton, and singers including Queen Esther, Brianna Thomas and, in DC, Howard University’s vocal jazz ensemble, Afro Blue. As befits these or any other black neighborhoods, the aesthetic will naturally spill beyond any strict definition of “jazz”—in DC, the program will explore connections between Miles Davis’ electric bands and DC’s influential “go-go” scene.
Moran and Cary will aim to capture the particular vibe that, historically, was born in each of these places and that still can be felt. And they’ll hope to make a larger point: As Moran put it to me, “Harlem for jazz and hip-hop is like Salzburg for European classical music.”
I posed a few related questions to each of them, and here’s how they replied: Continue reading “Harlem and DC: Back and Forth, Then and Now”

Spillage and Flow at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Saxophonist Kidd Jordan (pictured with bassist William Parker and drummer Alvin Fielder playing at this year's Jazz & Heritage Festival/ photo Larry Blumenfeld
Saxophonist Kidd Jordan (pictured with bassist William Parker and drummer Alvin Fielder playing at this year’s Jazz & Heritage Festival/ photo Larry Blumenfeld

Jazz culture spills out in New Orleans each day of every year in many ways, into clubs and concert-hall seasons, onto streets and in the mundane details of daily lives. (Which is why laws and policies that impede or restrict that flow are both insensitive and bad for business).
“Initially, New Orleans jazz was a reflection of a way of life,” clarinetist Michael White told me back in 2006 at his professor’s office at Xavier University, while peering over a jagged pile including the red notebook in which, during the weeks following the floods that resulted from levee breaks following hurricane Katrina, he jotted down the names and whereabouts of friends and colleagues. “It spoke of the way people walk, talk, eat, sleep, dance, drive, think, make jokes, and dress. But I don’t think America ever truly understood New Orleans culture, because the mindset is so different here. So that whole tradition was hidden from most of America.”
One thing Jazz Fest does quite well is bring that tradition into focus, as expressed on stages by musicians, in the Fair Grounds via second-line parades and Mardi Gras Indians, through food and art and, if you make it to the insightful interviews on the Allison Miner stage, with one-to-one conversations. The casual fan of, say, Wilco or John Legend or T.I. will come face-to-face with feathers, beads, chants, second-line rhythms, and the constellation of music that forms New Orleans jazz culture.
It’s a manufactured environment, sure, yet it opens doors and jumps across barriers. And it highlights the very pleasures and pains, the issues and ideas, I’ve been tracking for nearly a decade. Get my two-part reflections from Jazz Fest here and here. Continue reading “Spillage and Flow at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival”